The topic of what makes something a fake is one that appears with some frequency nowadays in connection with discussions concerning whether a mind implemented with silicon and electrons is somehow a fake version of one implemented with lipids and ions. But before we can turn to such more complicated questions I think we need to turn our attention first to what makes a fake in simpler cases, which is not always as easy to say as it may first appear.
The simplest cases involve things such as fake rocks, which may be actually made of Styrofoam. In such a case we compare the fake to a genuine item and point out that there are discoverable differences between them in their properties. In the case of the fake rock we point out that while it may look the same as a real rock that it is not actually composed of the same stuff, and thus falls short of the real thing. However there are plenty of cases where we can’t define what constitutes being fake in that obvious way. Consider, for example, what makes a painting a fake Picasso. It’s not that Picasso made his paintings out of different materials than the fake, because while it is a fake Picasso it is a perfectly genuine painting. What makes the fake a fake in this case is not something discoverable by inspection; it is its origin. Still though we make our distinction about what makes a genuine item different from a fake based on some properties, even though those properties may not be something that we can point out as they may be extrinsic to the item itself.
But even that conception of what counts as a fake is not sufficient to cover all cases. It works for some limited cases when the genuine items all have some simple set of properties in common, but it is perfectly possible to consider broader kinds of things that are not so easily definable. Consider, for example, complicated tools such as pianos or calculators. What makes a piano a piano or a calculator a calculator has very little to do with its construction, because we can imagine making them in a wide number of different ways. Rather what makes a fake different from a real item in these cases has something to do with how it functions. For example, a fake piano might be something that simply looked like a piano but didn’t play music, or if it did play music it did so by playing predetermined recordings of songs rather than actually responding to how it was used. Similarly we can imagine a fake calculator that at first appears like a normal calculator, but which only has a few sums built in by pre-computation. Again we might say that certain properties distinguish the real items from the fakes, in this case functional properties, but such properties are significantly different than the simpler properties of composition or origin considered above.
So far so good, but there are still more problematic cases to consider. What about, for example, fake emotions? We know that there are such things as fake emotions; someone may act as though they are feeling something but they may actually be devoid of such feelings. However, they may display the same behavior as someone who is really feeling emotions. Obviously the cases that we know about will be because they have slipped up and betrayed the fact that their emotion was fake, but we can easily imagine cases with no such slip-ups, and thus which can’t be distinguished from the real cases in that way. What we want to say is that the person with fake emotions is just acting as if they were really feeling something, while the person with real emotions actually has those feelings. But in making such a statement we inadvertently appeal to the distinction between having a real feeling and not having one. That simply moves the burden of distinguishing the real emotions from the fake ones to a task of distinguishing real feelings from fake ones, which isn’t any easier.
Let’s consider in more detail exactly how fake emotion works in order to shine some more light on the problem. To fake an emotion obviously the person doing the faking must have some idea concerning how people undergoing the real emotion behave; they must have a mental model of that behavior. Thus the person faking that emotion must do something like the following: first they decide that they want to appear as if they had some emotion as a result of inner processing. Then they consult their mental model of that emotion to decide what someone with that emotion would do in their place. The results are fed back into their inner processing, and which leads to a decision to either act in that way or to abandon the pretense if acting in that way is too inconvenient. In contrast consider how someone experiencing a real emotion decides how to act: their inner processing simply leads to a decision, the emotion exists as an alteration in how their inner processing usually works. Schematically then the two are as follows:
Fake: inner processing → mental emotion model → inner processing → behavior
Real: inner processing → behavior
The problem then comes in distinguishing the first from the second, because the chain consisting of inner processing → mental emotion model → inner processing is simply a complicated case of our normal mental operations, and in the inner processing in the case of real emotions may be complex in its own ways. Why doesn’t the emotional model in the fake case count as a real emotion given that it influences the inner processing in much the same way as the real version influences inner processing?
Such thoughts may even lead us to consider whether we really know that our own emotions are genuine. And such worries cannot be dispelled by playing linguistic games, and saying that what we call an emotion just is whatever we actually have, because when we wonder whether we posses genuine emotions we are wondering whether we possess essentially the same kinds of emotions as everyone else, and not just an emotion model that we are unaware of. Isn’t it possible that most people have real emotions while a few only have a model of what emotions are like, and who don’t know the difference because they have never experienced the real thing? Hopefully we all acknowledge that the idea is absurd. There is something wrong with conceiving of someone as an emotional faker who doesn’t know that they are faking them, because in a way the awareness that the emotion is fake seems like a key component of making it fake; while the real emotion is spontaneous the fake one is controlled.
Indeed I think that we can appeal to the idea of control to distinguish real from fake emotions. In the case of fake emotions weather to act emotionally is completely under control of conscious decision-making. Consciously the person faking an emotion consults their model of what that emotion is like, and consciously they decide whether to act in accordance with that emotion. In contrast real emotions exert control over conscious decision-making. The fact that someone is feeling an emotion causes them to make decisions differently, without a previous decision of theirs to be affected in that way. Of course this is not to deny that we can exert some control over our real emotions, but that control only occurs as a result of resisting them, which means that even in that case our emotions are controlling us, but that we have created opposing forces that keep their influence in check. (Which could give rise to a person who is really feeling a particular emotion but has it under complete control also faking that emotion in order to display it, despite the fact they don’t have to.) And that is why it is absurd to imagine someone who isn’t aware of the fact that they are faking emotion, because faking emotion requires conscious control over the affects of emotion, and you can hardly have that control without being aware of it.
Now we can answer the complicated question that motivated all this: can computers experience real emotions? If the account I have given here is correct the answer it yes, they could, if properly constructed. Obviously for the possibility of having emotions to exist the computer must be executing some process that counts as consciousness. And let us also suppose that the computer acts in ways that we are tempted to describe as emotional. To decide whether these emotions are genuine all we have to do is consult how the computer comes to the decision to act in that way. Does the process that is the computer’s consciousness consider what an emotional response would be like and then decide to act on it? If that is the case then the computer is just faking emotion. However, if the computer acts in that way because of changes in the process that is its consciousness, changes which are outside of its direct control, then it has real emotions. At least they would be as real as ours are. Since a computer might be programmed in that way I conclude that it is possible for computers to have emotions, although no existing computer manifests them.